Nicotine even worse than thought

When folks talk about gateway drugs that lead to addictions and a variety of problems, they should be focusing on nicotine. The data from a variety of sources show that early use of tobacco is related to addictions and other problems that are likely to follow.

By early use, I am referring to tobacco use that often starts during the middle school grades. A recent statewide survey in Arkansas found that the average age of first tobacco use was before the age of 12. Alcohol use started on average a bit over six months after tobacco, and the average age of first marijuana use was just before the age of 14.

Closer to home, one school district in Western North Carolina used a free 10-minute survey of high school students to look at substance use and other school issues. The WNC results were compatible with those from Arkansas in that onset of use followed the tobacco-alcohol-marijuana sequence. Of the high school students who used tobacco or alcohol, most reported their fist use before age 13. Smokeless tobacco products accounted for 20 percent of the first use in the WNC high school survey. An additional 28 percent of those who used tobacco used both smokeless and smoked tobacco during their initial year of use.

Of those WNC high school students who reported tobacco use by age 12, 18 percent showed signs of addiction to some substance (versus less than 4 percent for those using after the age of 15); 21 percent skipped three or more days of school in the past 30 (versus 3 percent for nontobacco users); and 40 percent had grades of C or less (versus less than 9 percent for nonusers). This does not mean that early tobacco use causes the other problems, but it is an early warning sign.

Addiction to nicotine can occur in a matter of weeks for youngsters. Studies of sixth- and seventh-graders have shown that addiction indications are seen in some after four weeks of occasional smoking or inhaling. A genetic study found that a gene, allele, found in about 40 percent of white Americans increased the risk for nicotine addiction if smoking started before age 17 but had no effect if smoking was initiated after that age.

The take-home lesson for parents is that they should be vigilant for tobacco use during the middle school years. Dabbling with tobacco products should not be considered a rite of passage. A firm and consistent message from parents that tobacco use is not acceptable is an effective prevention measure.

Norman Hoffmann is a retired clinical psychologist whose work has taken him to all 50 states and a number of other countries. A few years ago, he chose Western North Carolina as his permanent and last residence. He can be reached at


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